As It Happens

This bird had been considered 'lost' for 140 years. Here's how scientists found it again

Scientists have captured video of a black-naped pheasant-pigeon on an island in Papua New Guinea. It was the first time the bird had been documented since 1882.

Expedition teams credits 'incredible local knowledge' of Papua New Guinea hunters

A small bird stands outside among some twigs and grass. It has an orange belly, a black head, big black tail feathers, and a bright orange beak and matching eyes.
This footage is the first scientific documentation of the black-naped pheasant-pigeon — known locally in Papua New Guinea as an auwo — in 140 years. (Jason Gregg/American Bird Conservancy)

John Mittermeier could barely believe his eyes when he saw the footage of a little black and orange bird strutting its tail feathers in front of the camera.

He and his team have captured video of a black-naped pheasant-pigeon on an island in Papua New Guinea. It was the first time the bird had been documented since 1882.

"This is just a story of excitement and hope," Mittermeier told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "I mean, how incredible is it that this species was missing to scientists for 140 years and we were able to find it?"

Mittermeier was the co-leader of a 30-day expedition to search the island of Fergusson for signs of the elusive creature. They had just about lost all hope when one pranced right past one of their motion sensor cameras on Day 28.

WATCH | Rare footage of a black-naped pheasant-pigeon:


"We had been working incredibly, incredibly hard to try to find this bird. We had tons of doubts going through our mind at that point, thinking that we might not be able to find it, wondering if it even existed," Mittermeier said. 

"It's kind of like all our dreams coming true and just this incredible, incredible relief."

The expedition was a joint venture by the American Bird Conservancy, the Papua New Guinea National Museum and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Mittermeier is the director of the lost birds program at the American Bird Conservancy. In partnership with Re:wild and BirdLife International, his organization is trying to find and document the more than 140 "lost" birds around the world.

And by lost, he means birds that have no confirmed documentation — in the form of photographs, audio recordings or genetic samples — for 10 or more years.

By that definition, you can't get much more lost than the black-naped pheasant-pigeon, or Otidiphaps insularis, which was first described by scientists in 1882, then never again.

"The pheasant pigeon really stood out because it's one of the birds that's been lost for the longest period of time," Mittermeier said. "Or I should say it was one of the birds that had been lost for the longest periods of time."

Local knowledge was key 

All the scientists really knew about the bird was that it was first spotted on Fergusson, an island in the D'Entrecasteaux Archipelago off eastern Papua New Guinea. Even that wasn't much to go on, given that the island spans 1,500 square kilometres. 

So the team relied on local knowledge, and began by interviewing residents. 

At first, most of the people they spoke to said they'd never heard of the bird — until they reached the villages on the western Mt. Kilkerran. The hunters were familiar with the bird, which is known locally as an auwo.

It was a local hunter named Augustin Gregory in the village of Duda Ununa who give them their big break. He told the scientists he'd seen the auwo on multiple occasions. He described how it looked, moved and sounded in great detail.

A small bird stands outside in a lush, green forested area. It has an orange belly, a black head, big black tail feathers, and a bright orange beak and matching eyes.
Scientists don't know much about the black-naped pheasant-pigeon. (Doka Nason/American Bird Conservancy)

He took the scientists to the places where he'd spotted the creature. They didn't see any up close in person but they planted cameras in those locations. It was at one of those sites that the bird finally appeared. 

"The game-changer in terms of finding it was really some leads we got from some local people there — particularly this one man," Mittermeier said. "A huge component of this story is the incredible local knowledge."

Serena Ketaloya, a conservationist from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, says the discovery is a welcome one.

"The communities were very excited when they saw the survey results, because many people hadn't seen or heard of the bird until we began our project and got the camera trap photos," she said in a press release from the American Bird Conservancy. 

"They are now looking forward to working with us to try to protect the pheasant-pigeon."

What do we know about the auwo?

At this point, scientists don't know much about the auwo. They have two sets of photographs and video of at least two birds. 

They suspect — for obvious reasons — that it's very rare and geographically limited.

"My first hope is really that we're going to have an opportunity to learn more about this bird, get a better sense of where exactly it occurs on the island, what its population size might be, and what potential threats it could be facing," Mittermeier said.

"And then the next hope is really that we're going to be able to turn that information into a great collaboration with some of the local communities there and find a way to protect this bird, perhaps develop some eco-tourism so that people can go and see it personally. I know I'd love to actually see it."

It's just one thing about the future that has him excited.

"I'm really optimistic that some of the other birds around the world might be able to be found as well. And I'm hoping we can do that and get some more good news in the near future."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story referred to the black-naped pheasant-pigeon by the scientific name Otidiphaps nobilis. In fact, it is Otidiphaps insularis.
    Nov 30, 2022 1:20 PM ET

Interview with John Mittermeier produced by Brianna Gosse.

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